Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

"A Woman Directed the Scariest Horror Movie of the Year, Maybe of the Decade."

So reads the headline to Laura Parker's New York Magazine interview with Jennifer Kent, the first-time director who helmed this year's indie Australian hit "The Babadook."

I've skipped a lot of this past decade's horror movies, but of the ones I have seen... yeah, "The Babadook" is definitely the scariest.

That doesn't necessarily mean the best. To my way of thinking, that honor still goes to Tomas Alfredson's 2008 Swedish vampire flick "Let The Right One In." Kent will have to settle for second best. But a VERY CLOSE second.

As great as it is, I'm not sure being scary was ever Alfredson's primary concern when he made "Let The Right One In." At its heart it's a dark coming-of-age story and a tragic romance. The scares are there, and they're effective, but Alfredson never really pushes them up beyond a high simmer. To mix metaphors, I wouldn't say he pulls his punches, exactly...but the punches he delivers are really just warning taps. He's not interested in hurting you.

But, with "The Babadook," Kent doesn't bother with punches at all. She simply goes for the throat. She not only wants to hurt you, she wants to make you bleed.

The first two-thirds of "The Babadook" are utterly terrifying, and they're terrifying in the way that I like things to be terrifying. The film is deeply psychological — rooted in the damaged psyche of widow and single mom Amelia (Essie Davis) and her possibly disturbed six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). It sports all those familiar haunted-house/boogeyman-movie tropes that we're so familiar with — the deep shadows, the thumps and thuds from the hallway, the phantom whispering and the slowly opening doors. But Kent just handles all these tropes better than almost any other film in the last 25 years or so. The atmosphere of dread that permeates this movie is thick and at times almost suffocating.

Amelia is struggling to raise Samuel alone after her husband was killed driving her to the hospital to give birth. Six years later she's still grief-stricken, as well as exhausted and at a loss to explain Samuel's pervasive (and increasingly dangerous) obsession with monsters

Things go south when Samuel picks a mysterious pop-up book called "Mr. Babadook" off his shelf for Amelia to read to him at bedtime. Amelia doesn't know where the book came from, and neither it seems does Samuel. She begins to read, and at first the book seems harmless enough, if a little odd.

But as the story continues, it takes a turn beyond the slightly scary and toward the utterly traumatizing.

For those of you who — like me — grew up with the works of Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, or the infamous "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series, you will remember that thrill of reading something that, while ostensibly for children, felt inappropriate.  Too scary, maybe. Too dangerous. Those books largely flew under parents' radars, and there was a very real sense of menace to them. Something wrong. You got the feeling that the authors — adults, for God's sake — really and truly wanted to give you nightmares. It was like a creepy old neighbor up the street whispering something vaguely horrible into your ear and then daring you to run home and tell your parents about it.

"Mr. Babadook" is like that, but on steroids.

Of course, from that point forward Samuel's monster obsession takes an even darker turn. As the movie proceeds, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell if "The Babadook" is at core about a dangerously disturbed child, a mother losing her mind, or a bonafide supernatural boogeyman. Or perhaps all of the above.

I was legitimately frightened for the brunt of the movie — and for me, that's really saying something. It takes a lot for a horror movie to scare me anymore. This one did. It got under my skin, took me back to when I was six and was convinced that there was a creature living in the tree outside my bedroom window. At one point an usher opened the theater doors and I almost screamed.

Unfortunately, as "The Babadook" moves into its final act Kent loses control of the material a little bit. The film becomes increasingly histrionic and way too on-the-nose with its themes (there's some truly cringe-inducing dialogue in the last twenty minutes or so). The movie starts to feel a little show-offy — crazy for the sake of being crazy. And Kent doesn't quite know where to stop. She tries to pack about four conclusions into a ten-minute span, and then somehow still manages to end on one of the movie's flattest scenes.

But these are nitpicks. The film has its flaws, but the stuff that works REALLY works. And the performances are pretty incredible. Davis gives the movie a solid foundation for Kent to build upon, and she somehow manages to singlehandedly keep the wheel on the truck even as she's asked to do increasingly preposterous things.

But the real revelation is Wiseman. This kid gives one of the most powerful, naturalistic, and nuanced performances I've seen in a very long time. It's not just a great performance for a child actor (perhaps the best I've seen in, well, basically ever). It's a great performance, period.

I'm not kidding and barely exaggerating when I say Wiseman is almost Daniel Day Lewis-level good here. I predict that, if he doesn't go off the rails like so many child stars do, in 20 years he's going to be the actor of his generation.

If I was to grade this movie, I'd give it an A-. And Kent is now THE director to watch.